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Crimea Annexation Anniversary: Russia Parties, Beefs Up Military

Celebrations commemorating the one-year anniversary of the annexation of Crimea capped off a dramatic Russian military expansion on the peninsula.
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MOSCOW — A party and concert in Moscow's Red Square on Wednesday commemorating the one-year anniversary of the annexation of Crimea capped off a dramatic Russian military expansion on the peninsula, and underlined Moscow's determination to hold onto the disputed Black Sea region.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has reiterated his government's commitment to the region despite bruising Western sanctions aimed at punishing Russia for what is widely seen as a land grab.

"Crimea is a region of the Russian Federation and of course the subject of our regions is not up for discussion," he said Tuesday.

Russia formally annexed Crimea on March 19, 2014, signaling a dramatic deterioration of ties with Ukraine and the West. Since then, Moscow has backed up its tough talk with hardware and men.

"We have seen a drastic build up of military capabilities of the Russian armed forces in Crimea [which added to] already existing naval capabilities," Maxim Shepovalenko, a senior research fellow at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, told NBC News.

Russia has reinforced ground forces and air defense on Crimea — roughly doubling its military manpower there — and some 25,000 to 30,000 Russian service members are now stationed on the peninsula, analysts said. Under Ukrainian governance, Russia had been allowed to station up to 25,000 troops, but actual deployments tended to be far below that.

Shepovalenko's colleague Vasily Kashin said that Russian forces are now at a level that would allow them to defend the peninsula without reinforcements from the mainland. This doesn't mean reinforcements aren't available — they are.

According to state news agency TASS, Russia is set to send Tu-22M3 bombers capable of carrying nuclear warheads to Crimea as part of massive nationwide military drills this week. The plan echoes earlier claims by the Russian Foreign Ministry that Russia does not ruling out placing nuclear weapons on the peninsula.

And conventional Russian forces in Crimea are set to increase, experts say.

The Black Sea Fleet is expected to add 30 ships to the current 40 by 2020. Russia has already started to modernize military facilities, including those taken over from the Ukrainian military during the annexation, according to analysts.

Russia is also expected to focus on rehabilitating the peninsula's military infrastructure, Shepovalenko said. This would include renovation of air strips, underground facilities and logistical facilities, as well as replacement of armaments, he said.

"In Crimea only, we have about sixteen air fields," Shepovalenko said. These allow the Russian military to protect the country's Western border, but also display its military might throughout the Black Sea and as far as the Mediterranean. The movement of military hardware and manpower is being closely watched by Western government, and NATO is holding a large exercise in the Black Sea.

Russia, meanwhile, is conducting its own military drills on Crimea.

Rear Adm. Brad Williamson, commander of the NATO fleet, told NBC News in a telephone interview that the exercise is to assure NATO partners at the black sea including Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey that they're part of the alliance.

The military exercises go hand-in-hand with a spike in military activity on the water, beneath the surface and in the air since the start of the Crimea crisis. This includes Russian ships shadowing NATO members' ships, as well as Russian military aircraft overflying the ships.

As one NATO official told NBC News on condition of anonymity: "They are making it known that they are there."